Following Pope Francis' calls to "meet people where they are, to accompany them, to open the arms of the church to them, especially young people," Helena Bishop George Thomas has spearheaded at initiative to relax diocesan policy on where weddings may take place.
Approved by Thomas last June, the revised regulations' openness to non-church wedding sites has flown under the radar until this year's "wedding season" got underway, Thomas said.
"It's official: outdoor Catholic weddings a go in Butte" headlined a June 13 Montana Standard newspaper report that featured the wedding of Jovlyn "Jovy" Link, 28, and Mike Satterthwaite, 46, in a ceremony at scenic Basin Creek Reservoir.
"It's been a really long time since our parish had an outdoor wedding," Butte's St. Patrick Church pastoral associate Seaneen Prendergast told reporter Renata* Birkenbuel.
"In May, the couple was 'ecstatic' to learn Bishop George Leo Thomas gave them permission to wed outdoors in nature instead of inside their church," Birkenbuel wrote. "Thomas gave his blessing after they sent him a written request."
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It has been standard practice in U.S. diocese to restrict Catholic weddings to church buildings. Canon 1118 from the Code of Canon Law says that "marriage between Catholics or between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic party is to be celebrated in a parish church." There is some leeway; special permission can be given to use, for example, a college chapel or an oratory, with a bishop's permission. The canon also adds that the local bishops "can permit a marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place."
Fr. Patrick Beretta, the pastor who officiated at the Link-Satterthwaite wedding, told NCR he "was very moved by how deeply spiritual the outdoors felt. Montanans have a sacred and powerful bond with God's creation."
"What I admire the most about Bishop Thomas' decision," Beretta added, "is that it affords us more freedom to bring Christ to well beyond the confines of our churches. It seems to me that it fulfills the teaching of the Gospel and reflects perfectly the mystery of the Incarnation. Response from our parishioners has been very positive, even enthusiastic. In the church, a policy change is always by nature both pastoral and spiritual."
Thomas underscored those dimensions of the revised policy, "Diocese of Helena: Suitable Place for a Wedding."
"My whole approach to this," Thomas said, "is that we are meeting people where they are, bringing the church to the margins. We think this is a wise move -- to open a new door and see where the Spirit takes us."
"For years I have received very moving letters from young couples who have received a 'no' on their request to be married at a place special to them, and they movingly request reconsideration," Thomas continued.
"I hear from parents who are brokenhearted because their children opted to be married in a non-church setting by a justice of the peace, and they often never return to church. On Sunday after Sunday I read of Catholic families' weddings in destination locations in the absence of any church involvement.
"In my regular evening dialogues with college students, the question often came up in regard to weddings outside a church setting. It was troubling, especially when perhaps a simple relaxation of a regulation could open a door" for couples to seek a Catholic marriage rather than opt for a non-Catholic wedding.
"It was time," he said, "to reconsider a policy that had been rigidly enforced, and at times perhaps unfairly enforced."
Thomas laughed when he admitted some priest advisors "looked at me like I was losing my mind" when he first broached the idea of broadening the approach to non-parish wedding sites.
Pastor of Helena's St. Helena Cathedral, Msgr. Kevin O'Neill, admits he had "some strong reservations" when Thomas proposed a more open stance on wedding sites to both the Presbyteral Council and College of Consultors.
Debate and conversation, notably among clergy of the diocese, were extensive "and quite candid," O'Neill said.
While the more strict policy had been "explained gently with charity," he said, "it was not always heard that way."
The cathedral pastor said Pope Francis' exhortations "to leave the sacristy, to go out into the streets" have been "the whole thrust" of the bishop's appeal, and an effective one.
"This is not a wink-and-a-nod thing," O'Neill stressed. "This has been thoroughly vetted through dialogue and consultation."
Thomas, O'Neill, Beretta and others consulted by NCR underscored pastoral and catechetical principles emphasized within the policy.
Anne McGowan, Ph.D., adjunct professor of theology with a focus on sacraments and worship at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minn., said the Helena policy is "not carte blanche encouragement of non-church wedding celebrations."
"Looking at the background reason given for this," she said, "there is a clear effort to connect the spiritual and the sacred ... and provide a pastoral opportunity" to connect couples seeking a Catholic marriage to church teaching and parish life.
"It seems to encourage room for conversation that needs to happen ... on why a couple is seeking to be married in the church -- what it means to have a Catholic wedding."
The Helena policy, McGowan emailed, "reiterates that 'The understanding of the Church is that the parish church is the appropriate place for the celebration of marriage involving a Catholic party' (per Can. 1118 §1) while also recognizing that 'there may be circumstances for which permission may be requested to utilize another "suitable place.'"
The policy also provides "helpful additional guidance as to what such a 'suitable place' might be and the pastoral circumstances that might warrant the celebration of marriage" in such a location, the theologian said.
McGowan, Thomas, O'Neill and others all pointed out that the policy does not allow a nuptial Mass to be celebrated at alternative, outdoor venues. Such a wedding must follow either the "Rite for Celebrating Marriage Outside of Mass" or the "Rite for Celebrating Marriage between a Catholic and an Unbaptized Person" in outdoor-authorized circumstances.
Last year a half dozen requests were received from couples asking a wedding venue exception; so far this year 10 are in process, diocesan officials said. The number of Catholic weddings in the diocese have run between 175 and 190.
Thomas said some fellow bishops have expressed keen interest in the Helena move and that several conversations on it took place this week outside meetings of the June assembly of the U.S. bishops taking place in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Some kidded him, he said, "that I am putting pressure on them" to follow suit.
Thomas said he shared with other bishops that the effort "really is a way to try to fully engage with young people at a pivotal point in their lives" and that a "quid pro quo" understanding exists: if permission to use an alternative venue is permitted, it is clear that a couple will participate fully in marriage preparation requirements and be expected to develop an active parish life.
Reception among young people has been positive, according to Fr. Jeff Fleming, director of Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Montana, Missoula.
"I know of couples who really struggled with" not having the option of using a wedding location special to them, Fleming said, "and some still have really hurt feelings. Some of the couples doing marriage prep now are very excited about the outdoor option."
"Not slamming the door in their faces has been the bishop's approach," he said. He and others mentioned feedback on the relaxed policy often includes comments that "they wished this had been done earlier, or that it had been available to them or their children."
"Word is still getting out," he said.
Thomas said the new policy and its guidelines are "ad experimentum." Review and appraisal are scheduled to take place next year.
*An earlier version of this story misspelled Birkenbuel's first name.
[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is email@example.com.]